IS it Upton Park or is it the Boleyn Ground? We’ll leave that question for part three. First we’ll start way back when West Ham United were Thames Ironworks, and how they benefitted from the demise of another club.
Birth of the Irons
Old Castle Swifts FC were the first professional football club in Essex. Founded by employees of the Castle Shipping Line they lasted only a few short years before bankruptcy. Many of their former players then joined Thames Ironworks FC, a new club started by shipbuilding foreman and local referee Dave Taylor in 1895 with the permission of Arnold Hills, owner of the Ironworks.
The new club moved into Hermit Road, Canning Town, a ground recently vacated by Old Castle Swifts and conveniently close to the Ironworks factory.
The new team kicked off for the first time in September 1895 with a friendly match against Royal Ordnance Factories FC, themselves a breakaway team from Woolwich Arsenal, which resulted in a 1-1 draw. The first competitive match took place away at Chatham United in the first qualifying round of the FA Cup. It resulted in a 5-0 defeat but the ‘Teetotallers’ as they were to become known soon earned their first silverware with victory, after three matches, over Barking Woodville in the West Ham Charity Cup.
Early Floodlighting – With Whitewashed Balls
Games at Hermit Road would often be played in early evenings in order to allow employees of the Ironworks and their families the chance to attend. After an initial attempt with twelve 2000 candle power lights was less than successful they tried stringing 2,000 light bulbs around the pitch on poles. The first of these was played in March 1896, when ‘The Irons’ lost 5-3 to Woolwich Arsenal. One of the problems with games played under the lights was that play had to be stopped every few minutes in order for the ball to be dipped in a pail of whitewash in order to keep it visible.
In 1896 the club took part in league football for the first time, joining the London League. Having been voted into the 2nd Division they were ‘promoted’ without playing a match when old opponents Royal Ordnance withdrew. Their first match in the competition saw a comfortable 3-0 home win over the wonderfully-named Vampires in front of 1,260 fans.
Soon after starting in the London League the club learned that, having violated their tenancy agreement by building a perimeter fence and a pavilion, and charging admission fees they were to be given notice to quit Hermit Road. They quickly found a new venue at Browning Road but this was to prove temporary too as their owner had bigger plans.
In 1896 Hills had bought land in Plaistow, close to what is now West Ham Underground station. Hills named his new venue The Memorial Grounds to commemorate 60 years of Queen Victoria’s reign and built a multi-purpose sports arena at the site. The new ground and complex, also housing cycling and athletics events and featuring a huge swimming pool, cost over £20,000 of Hills’ personal fortune, and was completed in just six months,
‘Red Cap, Belt and Stockings’
The opening fixture at the Memorial Grounds was in September 1897 when The Irons, wearing their new kit of ‘Royal Cambridge blue shirts, white knickers, red cap, belt and stockings’ played a friendly against Northfleet watched by just 200 spectators. The season after the move they joined the Southern League 2nd division, winning promotion to the top flight immediately. After finishing runners-up in the London League to The 3rd Grenadier Guards in their first season, they came out on top in their second year – 1897-98 .
The London League featured some teams that would go on to become household names like Brentford (who finished runners-up in the second season), Queen’s Park Rangers and Fulham, along with a number who never survived including the aforementioned Vampires, Ideal Wanderers and Novocastrians.
West Ham are Born
In need of money to pursue other business interests and not entirely happy with the club’s decision to turn professional, Hills (pictured above) decided to create a new company and offer shares to the public. With the title West Ham Football Club Company Limited. There were 4,000 shares offered at 10/- (50p) each and Hills took up 1,000 of them therefore remaining a 25% shareholder and major figure at the club. He also agreed that the club could use the Memorial Grounds rent-free for three years, and, in passing stated that he would like the club to adopt a policy of employing only teetotal players. He was unable to get the last-named proposal passed.
Thames Ironworks resigned from the Southern League and their place was taken by West Ham United who played their first game at the Memorial Grounds in September 1900, thrashing Gravesend United 7-0 in the Southern League. They finished the season in a respectable 6th place, eight points behind champions Southampton and also reached the ‘Intermediate Round’ of the FA Cup, seeing off Olympic, New Brompton and local rivals Clapton Orient (in front of a 10,000 crowd) before falling to a 1-0 defeat to a Liverpool team that would end the season as 1st Division champions.
King of the Castle
By the 1903-04 season the club were struggling financially and chief benefactor Hills was having money troubles of his own. With the lease up for renewal at the Memorial Grounds the two sides failed to come to terms on a new deal. The club gave Syd King (above), a former player who had been appointed manager/secretary in 1900 the task of finding a new home.
One of the first places King looked at was Boleyn Castle field in the grounds of Green Street House just off Green Street in East Ham. The land was owned by the Catholic Ecclesiastical Authorities and the move was initially frowned upon by the Home Office. However King went to see Sir Ernest Gray, an MP and put the club’s case over well enough that “through his good offices, subject to certain conditions” the club were allowed to take possession of Boleyn Castle.
The pitch was laid out on an area that was formerly used to grow potatoes and cabbages and was often referred to by locals as ‘The Cabbage Patch’.
The deal was completed quickly and the ground hurriedly prepared for the start of the new season. The opening fixture was on 1 September 1904 and resulted in a 3-0 victory over Millwall. There was an attendance of 10,000 at the ground, known for one season at ‘The Castle’, though oddly they played the game on a Thursday evening when the crowd might have been doubled had they moved it to the Saturday.
That Millwall match started a fierce rivalry with their fellow East Enders that continues to this day. Indeed when the teams met in 1905 a local newspaper reported; ‘From the very first kick it was seen that there was likely to be some trouble. All attempts at football were ignored’. And the trouble wasn’t limited to the pitch; in the aftermath the FA ordered the Hammers to post warning notices after a number of fist fights had broken out on the ‘banks’.
Still competing in the Southern League, the years leading up to the First World War brought little joy to Upton Park, a 3rd-place finish in 1912-13 being the best the Hammers could muster despite the goalscoring exploits of local lad Danny Shea (above) who scored 111 goals in 179 games for the club between 1907 and 1913.
Perhaps the best of the pre-War seasons was 1910-11 when the team enjoyed a fine FA Cup run, beating Nottingham Forest, Preston North End and Manchester United (before a sell-out crowd of 27,000) before losing out on a semi-final spot to Blackburn Rovers by the odd goal in five.
The Hammers actually won their first major trophy during the war years. Football had been regionalised with the Football League being run with Lancashire and Midland sections whilst Southern clubs competed in the London Combination. In 1916-17 Syd King’s team won the title, scoring 110 goals in their 40 games and finishing seven points clear of old rivals Millwall. Snead led the way among goalscorers with 32 in 32 games while another local lad, Syd Puddefoot, found the net 24 times.
During that 1916-17 season King used a whopping 49 players due to enforced changes whilst for the 1918-19 season he used 62. Many players played under assumed names and made just one appearance as the club, like all others, were constantly needing to replace those called up or volunteering for the war effort.
The Football League announced that once hostilities were over they would be expanding their number of teams from 40 to 44. Elections were held for the four new spots and the Hammers, along with Coventry City, Rotherham County and South Shields gained admission to the 2nd Division.
A new 5,000 capacity East Stand, which became known as the ‘Chicken Run’ because of the type of wire that surrounded the enclosure, was added to the ground in 1919, part of £4,000 worth of works to coincide with the promotion to league status, the first major development to what had been, until then, a pretty basic set-up. The ‘Chicken Run’ would remain in place until 1969 when seats were installed on the upper deck of a new stand.
Thus on 30 August 1919, Upton Park hosted its first-ever Football League match. 20,000 were there to see the Hammers draw 1-1 with Lincoln City. Later in the season the visit of Huddersfield Town attracted 25,000 spectators then a new attendance record was set when promotion-chasing Spurs visited and close to 30,000 attended. Syd Puddefoot scored twice to give the home team a 2-1 win, ending Spurs’ 14-game unbeaten run but failing to stop the North Londoners from securing promotion within weeks.
Puddefoot quickly earned hero status among Hammers fans and his £5,000 transfer to Falkirk in February 1922 caused outrage, even though the fee involved was a new record. But the anger was quickly forgotten when his replacement, Vic Watson, scored four times in four matches.
In 1922-23 Syd King and his team achieved a notable double of promotion to the top flight and an FA Cup Final appearance where they met Bolton Wanderers in the first-ever Wembley Final.
An awful start to the campaign saw the Hammers hovering close to the bottom of the table before a goalless draw against Leeds in early November saw them embark on a 32-match run with just a solitary defeat – against Manchester United on Boxing Day.
A major factor in the team’s success were the goals of Watson. The centre-forward scored 27 goals in 50 games that season, a decent return for a player who cost £50 when bought from Wellingborough.
Originally signed to provide cover for Puddefoot, Watson proved a more than able replacement and he would go on to play over 500 times for the Hammers with the 326 goals goals scored – including 13 hat-tricks – remaining a record to this day.
In the Cup the Hammers had some luck with the draw. They didn’t have to face a top-flight team in their run to Wembley with Hull City, Brighton, Plymouth, Southampton and Derby County were overcome but, in the famous ‘White Horse Final’ in front of a crowd which was estimated in some places at over 200,000 they struggled to produce their best form and lost 2-0.
With two league matches remaining after the final and points still needed the Hammers had to knuckle down to ensure the campaign wouldn’t become a complete disappointment. A win and a draw from that last pair were enough to ensure that the club would compete in the top flight for the first time.
In 1925 further development work was carried out at the ground with the construction of a new double-decker West Stand with terracing at the lower level, raising capacity to 40,000.
The Hammers retained a steady position in the top flight until relegation in 1931-32, after which they would remain in the second tier for 25 years.
A Tragic End
The relegation also brought to an end the 32-year spell at the club for Syd King. And it had more serious and tragic ramifications. The former player, who had managed the club since 1902 and was the last link to the Thames Ironworks days, took the loss of form very much to heart. He argued with a number of the club’s directors and on 9 November 1932 was suspended without salary for three months due to ‘insubordination and drunkenness’. Within two months of the suspension King, ‘Mr West Ham’, was dead, committing suicide by drinking a mixture of alcohol and a corrosive liquid.
So, part one of our West Ham history ends on a tragic note.
Coming soon: Part Two as the Luftwaffe take a shot at the stadium and the club get back to the top